Another hidden figure: Clyde Foster brought color to NASA Over three decades, he recruited hundreds of African Americans into the space program

Clyde Foster came of age in Alabama in the 1950s, a place and time so oppressive for African Americans that a former Nazi rocket scientist stood out as a figure of racial moderation.

Foster’s father worked at a Birmingham iron foundry, where the dirtiest, most backbreaking jobs were reserved for African Americans. Every day he would come home dog-tired, prompting his son to vow that he would earn a living using his mind, not his back. By itself, that was an audacious plan for a black man living in Alabama.

But Foster did much more than just find himself a desk job. He became a pioneering figure in the U.S. space program. Over nearly 30 years working for NASA, beginning in the agency’s earliest days, his mathematical calculations helped propel rockets into space. His focused determination helped establish a computer science program at what is now Alabama A&M University, making the historically black institution the first public college in Alabama to offer the major. And his quiet and relentless advocacy brought hundreds of African Americans into space industry jobs in the Deep South, helping to shift perceptions of black people in ways both subtle and profound.

A page from a brochure for the Computer Science Center at Alabama A&M. Clyde Foster (on right) started the center.

Alabama A&M

Beyond all that, Foster also became a small-town political leader whose influence was felt throughout Alabama. He led the effort to restore the long-forgotten charter of Triana, a once-dying black enclave of fewer than 100 families outside Huntsville. Foster served as Triana’s mayor for two decades, and his work became a model for other tiny, mostly black towns in Alabama that took control of their political lives.

“There is no other African American NASA employee who did more to get jobs for black people, to get advancement for black people and to get young people working at NASA. No one did more than Clyde Foster,” said Richard Paul, co-author of We Could Not Fail, a book about the first African Americans who worked in the space program. “On top of that, you have his entire political career, which is also groundbreaking. The man’s accomplishments are absolutely heroic.”

Foster, who was 86 when he died in 2017, was no doubt a hero, but one who most people outside Alabama had never heard of. By all accounts, he never protested, picketed or sat in. Yet he improved many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of black lives in a state where the law sanctioned blatant and often violent efforts to discount them.

“He just loved people. He wanted people to have a chance,” his widow, Dorothy Foster, 84, said in an interview. “He just wanted to help everybody. He was not the kind of activist you read about. He felt he could help blacks more by getting them employment than by getting out there and marching in the street.”

Foster was born in Birmingham in 1931, the sixth of 12 children. He went to the city’s public schools, which were segregated, as was every other public institution and accommodation in town.

“There were two sets of everything, one for the colored and one for the white,” Foster said in a 2008 interview with Paul for a radio documentary called Race and the Space Race. “Signs were posted on water fountains, restrooms.” Police harassment was a constant threat. “Whenever they would see a group of black kids assembled together, there was always some reason to go after them.”

A 1942 photograph of the Foster family: Back row, from left: Betty Foster (Berry), James Foster, James’s wife Elizabeth Foster, Clyde Foster, Dorothy Foster (Sweatt), Otis Foster, Ann Foster (Sweatt), Fred Foster. Front row, from left: David Foster, Katie Foster (Rodgers), Clyde’s father, James Foster, Clyde’s mother, Effie Foster, Geraldine Foster (Franklin), Eddie Foster.

Courtesy of Foster Family

Foster thought the best way to insulate himself from the many perils of being black in Alabama was through education. He had always been a good student, and he ended up going to Alabama A&M in Huntsville, where he majored in chemistry and mathematics. At the time, he had his eye on a teaching career.

While still in college, Foster crossed paths with Wernher von Braun, the Nazi scientist behind the V-2 rocket. Built with concentration camp slave labor, the V-2 was the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile, and the Nazis used it to rain death on the Allies during World War II. Von Braun later came to the United States with a group of about 125 German scientists, engineers and technicians who had been captured by American soldiers. Rather than prosecute them, U.S. authorities enlisted the German scientists to develop missiles, and later spacecraft, for America.

Much of that work, the backbone of the nation’s space program, was located in the Deep South, and it began at a time when harsh segregation reigned. NASA rockets were developed under von Braun in northern Alabama, tested in rural Mississippi, manufactured in Louisiana, launched from Cape Canaveral in central Florida and monitored from Houston.

With this new mission, von Braun was quickly transformed from a warrior for the supposed Aryan master race into an advocate for science education so he could build a skilled workforce to support the space program. Perhaps not fully understanding racial dynamics in his new home, he came to all-black Alabama A&M early on for help. Von Braun wrote a script about his plans for the space program in Alabama, including the then-fanciful dream of flying men to the moon, and he asked Foster and several of his classmates to read it during an assembly at an all-white high school. It was never clear why von Braun chose to have black A&M students deliver his message to white students, and Foster later told interviewers the assembly was a flop. But the unusual encounter introduced Foster to a wondrous new industry that would eventually change his life.

Foster graduated from A&M in 1954 and was drafted into the Army, where he spent two years. He and Dorothy had met and married while in college, and when Foster came back to Alabama after completing his military commitment, he got a job teaching high school science near Selma in the central part of the state. Dorothy had remained in her hometown of Triana, and she wanted him to move back. After a year, he did.

“I told Clyde that I was going to call the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and set up an appointment for a job interview, and ‘You’re going,’ ” Dorothy recalled with a laugh. “And he did.”

Foster is seen here in the Army. He landed a job as a mathematician technician with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in 1957.

Courtesy of Foster Family

Foster landed a job as a mathematician technician with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in 1957. The agency, headed by von Braun, was located at the Redstone Arsenal, a military installation in Huntsville that would later house NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Foster was hired as part of a large team of people who crunched the numbers generated by gauges inside missiles and rocket engines during test flights. Their analysis allowed engineers to calculate wind resistance, the thrust of a rocket and its proper trajectory. NASA was formed a year after Foster started, and in 1960 he went to work for the new space agency.

Foster saw a bright future for himself at NASA. Working for the federal government was about as good as it got for a black man in Alabama. The pay was decent, and racial discrimination was illegal on federal property. Also, with the Kennedy administration pressing NASA to integrate the thousands of new jobs created by the space race, von Braun emerged as an advocate for integration. The New York Times once called him “one of the most outspoken spokesmen for racial moderation in the South.” Von Braun himself said the space age would belong to “those who can shed the shackles of the past.”

Outside the gates of Marshall, however, Alabama was still Alabama.

George Wallace, who had lost the 1958 governor’s race in part because he was perceived as insufficiently harsh when it came to race, took office as governor in 1963. In his inaugural address, he famously vowed, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The next year, Wallace tried to back up his words by standing in the doorway of an auditorium at the University of Alabama in what was ultimately a vain attempt to prevent two black students from enrolling.

Foster and the handful of other African Americans among the thousands of employees at Marshall were inevitably harmed by that racism. Employees looking to move up had to take training classes, but many of those classes were off-limits to blacks because they were held off base at hotels and other segregated public facilities. Foster once took a telemetry course in Atlanta, but he had to stay at what he called a “fly-by-night” hotel miles from the training center. Still, he told interviewers, he never missed a session.

A few years after he started at NASA, Foster was angered by a supervisor’s request to train a white co-worker to be his boss. He refused the request and then complained to higher-ranking NASA officials about the situation black workers faced. He demanded training programs that black workers could readily take advantage of. Soon a deal was struck: NASA would hold separate training sessions for black workers at Alabama A&M, often importing instructors from out of town. It was an odd compromise: segregated training classes when the country was moving to root out segregation. But it was the best Foster could do. More than 100 black employees eventually took advantage of the separate-but-equal NASA training, which would prove to be the foundation of Foster’s legacy at NASA.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama on November 21, 1931, Foster graduated from Parker High School in Birmingham in 1950 and received a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics and Chemistry from Alabama A&M College in 1954.

NASA/MSFC

“I would say his most significant contribution to NASA directly would be the training program,” said Steven Moss, the other co-author of We Could Not Fail. “He made it so black workers did not have to jump through all the hoops that others before them did. Then, later, he helped so many people get jobs. As I talked to people at other NASA facilities in the Deep South, you can kind of see the family tree. They would trace who they work for, or who helped them, and it always came back to Clyde Foster.”

Even though Foster did not work in personnel, NASA would tap him to travel to colleges around the country to recruit African Americans trained in science or engineering to come work at Marshall. It was not easy for NASA to attract skilled white employees to Alabama, given the state’s horrible reputation for racial violence. It was even harder for Foster to attract black workers.

“I would tell [recruits] Huntsville was really not as bad … as the image George Wallace was given,” Foster said in a 1990 interview for a NASA oral history. “I told them, ‘Now, if you really wanted the challenge, good discipline, the space program has it for you.’ ”

The black scientists, engineers and technicians who did join NASA found Foster to be a willing mentor, no matter whether he had recruited them.

James Jennings was a math major at A&M when he met Foster, who was a regular presence at his alma mater in the mid-1960s. At the time, Jennings was about 20, and he looked up to Foster, who was in his mid-30s. Jennings took some computer classes that ignited his interest in working in the space program, which in those days represented the pinnacle of technological innovation. Jennings began as a co-op student at NASA and ended up spending almost four decades at the agency. He said Foster was a mentor nearly every step of the way.

Foster credited his experience at NASA for giving him the confidence and know-how to conquer the many challenges he confronted.

Photo by Don Rutledge courtesy of Lucy Rutledge.

“When I went to NASA, that was my first introduction into a predominantly white organization,” Jennings recalled in an interview. “I was kind of excited and apprehensive at the same time. I really didn’t know how our education would hold up, but it did not take me very long to understand that my education was on par or better than many of the white students who worked there.”

One thing that helped, he said, was Foster’s constant support. “He took me under his wing. He used to call everybody ‘Horse.’ He told me, ‘Horse, if you keep your nose clean and do your job, you could go far in this organization.’ ”

Jennings proved Foster correct, as he ended up working at NASA’s Washington headquarters in the government’s highest civil service rank before his retirement in 2005.

“Clyde always was encouraging and looked to give me opportunities for visibility,” Jennings said. “If your work is not visible to others, it is easy for your supervisor not to promote you. Clyde knew that, and he was always encouraging us to volunteer for committees and special projects.”

In an effort to create a pipeline of black workers into NASA, Foster persuaded von Braun to allow him to set up a computer science program at A&M. NASA provided grants to help get the program going, although at first Foster struggled to persuade A&M officials that it was worthwhile.

Founded in the wake of the Civil War, A&M had always focused on training students for jobs that black people could get in Jim Crow Alabama: teaching, nursing, farming and certain kinds of engineering. When Foster talked about building a computer science program to train students to send rockets to the moon, the skepticism was palpable.

“Black administrators were not interested, and they did not pursue this money because the program was there for them to develop other kinds of programs,” Foster said in the 2008 interview. “The most that we had was electronic, or electrical and mechanical engineering. [We had] civil engineering — we had to build some damn roads — but we [were] talking about building a pathway to space.”

Eventually, Foster won over the A&M officials. NASA paid Foster’s salary for two years while he worked to establish the program, which went online in 1969.

The cover of a brochure for the Computer Science Center at was then called Alabama A&M College. Foster started the bachelor’s degree program in computer science.

Alabama A&M

“Everything he did, I think he realized he was making a difference,” Jennings said of Foster. “But he was not the kind of person looking to take credit for it.”

In the late 1970s, Foster took a job in NASA’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office, which got him away from the technical heart of the agency but gave him more leverage to help black people get a leg up.

“I thought I could make an even greater contribution to increase the workforce to a more integrated workforce,” Foster said in the 1990 interview. Foster was director of Marshall’s EEO office when he retired from NASA in 1987.

His advocacy did not stop at work. Foster served on Alabama’s Commission on Higher Education, to which he was first appointed by Wallace in 1974. That was besides his groundbreaking work as the mayor of Triana. His work to re-establish the town’s charter cleared the way for Triana to receive federal grants for a series of major upgrades, including building the town’s first water system, installing its first streetlights, paving its gravel streets and renovating the town hall, which previously had been a coal-heated shack.

Following Foster’s example, about a dozen African American towns were able to reincorporate and, in some cases, make similarly dramatic improvements. The new political control also allowed a generation of black mayors, police chiefs, sheriffs and other local officials to gain experience in office.

Decades later, Foster led the legal fight against a chemical company that had poisoned the town’s waterways with DDT, resulting in a $24 million settlement for Triana residents.

Foster credited his experience at NASA for giving him the confidence and know-how to conquer the many challenges he confronted.

“If I hadn’t had these experiences early in life to cross over into these areas: political, education, business,” he said. “All of that was done because of the experience I had with NASA.”

This article is being published in collaboration with American Experience/WGBH as part of its series “Chasing the Moon,” which examines the scientific, political and personal dramas behind the space race on the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. PBS will broadcast a film across three nights starting at 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT on July 8. Short digital films, articles, timelines and comics, including pieces on the first African American to be trained as an astronaut, the desegregation of Huntsville, and the Poor People’s Campaign protest at the Kennedy Space Center, can be found here.

Today in black history: Michael Jackson takes home 8 Grammys, ‘Porgy and Bess’ opens on Broadway, and more The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 28

1704 — Elias Neau, a Frenchman, opens a school for black students in New York. Neau, who worked as a cabin boy and a sailor in his early life, was always willing to lend a helping hand. But Neau was especially inspired to help enslaved communities after being captured by a French privateer near Jamaica in 1692 while out to sea. After being transferred to Marseille, France, for not renouncing his faith — he wrote letters to his wife, prayers, poems and hymns to pass time — Neau landed himself in solitary confinement, where he remained for six months. He was released from prison six years later.

1879 — Blacks flee political and economic exploitation in the South. Kansas became the land of promise for African-Americans, both free and enslaved, who sought educational, political and economic opportunities in the 1860s and 1870s. Although slavery still existed in surrounding areas, Kansas seemed to be a much better option than the tumultuous climate for African-Americans in the South.

Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, a runaway slave from Tennessee who sheltered escaped slaves once he was free, noted the conditions African-Americans were subjected to in the South and eyed Kansas. Singleton enlisted the help of Columbus Johnson, who helped Singleton circulate posters across the South that explained their plans. The withdrawal of federal troops from the South in 1877, marking the end of the Reconstruction era, caused the “Great Exodus” to peak in 1879. By then, at least 50,000 blacks, known as Exodusters, sought freedom in Kansas, Missouri, Indiana and Illinois with the help of Singleton, who became known as the father of the Black Exodus.

1932 — Richard Spikes, an auto enthusiast and industry innovator, receives a patent for the automatic gear shift for cars. In 1962, while losing his vision, Spikes continued to work on creating the automatic safety brake for cars. All of Spikes’ creations are still essential components of cars today.

1943 — Porgy and Bess opens on Broadway with Anne Brown and Todd Duncan in starring roles.

1948 — Sgt. Cornelius Frederick Adjetey, a member of the 81st and 82nd divisions of the Royal West African Frontier Force, became the first martyr for national independence of Ghana while on a peaceful march. Adjetey, along with unarmed ex-servicemen, began their journey from Accra, Ghana’s capital, to meet with the governor of the Gold Coast, Sir Gerald Creasy, to air their grievances and present a petition in regard to ending service entitlements that had not been received. Creasy dismissed the men, ordering them to leave. After the ex-servicemen refused to leave without a resolution, Creasy ordered police to open fire, instantly killing Adjetey and his cohorts. The killings were investigated, but not before causing general disorder and disturbances in Accra.

1984 — Michael Jackson wins eight Grammys. It was a night to remember for musician and entertainer Jackson, who took home eight Grammy Awards, including seven for his best-selling album Thriller. The album, which produced seven Top 10 singles after its November 1982 release, swept several categories, including best male R&B vocal performance and best R&B song for “Billie Jean,” best male rock vocal performance and record of the year for “Beat It,” best male pop vocal performance for “Thriller” and album of the year. Thriller broke all sales records to date and remains one of the top-grossing albums of all time.

1990 — Philip Emeagwali, known as the “Bill Gates of Africa,” receives the Gordon Bell Prize, considered the Nobel Prize of computing, for solving one of the 20 most difficult problems in the computing field.

Future Hall of Famer Stephen Curry, whom so many doubted, is headed home for All-Star Two Davidson College friends chat — about hoops, activism, family — and dreams that came true

Nov. 14, 2007. Stephen Curry’s first major — splash. He’d just scored 24 points en route to nearly upsetting No. 1-ranked North Carolina, losing by only four points. He definitely didn’t spend that night sulking over the heartbreaking loss, or celebrating the fact that he was leading SportsCenter for the first time.

Instead, he was in my dorm. Helping me with a project. I’d asked for his assistance earlier in the week, not expecting him to show up after his big game. But there he was, low-key and helping out. That’s what Stephen Curry does. And Steph and I are friends — we were at Davidson College at the same time.

We used to hang out before parties, kick it at the library and binge on late-night chicken Parmesan. It’s been nearly 10 years (April 23, 2009, to be exact) since Curry declared for the NBA draft, and this weekend he will return to his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, as a shining star who shined brighter than just about anyone thought he would. Three-time NBA champion. Six-time All-Star. Two-time league MVP. And the leader of one of the most indestructible juggernauts in all of sports: the Golden State Warriors.

“At first, at Davidson, I was able to just enjoy basketball without the NBA cloud over my head.”

We’ve kept in touch over the past decade as any college friends do, seeing each other on his various stops across the country, texting after life moments big and small, and reminiscing on the Davidson days that helped set us on our respective paths. I’ve watched him grow from the kid at Davidson to a dad and husband in the Bay Area. I’ve been awed by the player he’s grown into on the court — but never surprised at the man he’s become. For example, I wasn’t surprised when he made national headlines for taking on President Donald Trump by refusing to visit the White House after the Warriors won the championship in 2017. Curry had participated in activist efforts at Davidson, unafraid of consequences.

As we look to his return to Charlotte, I asked Curry to hop on the phone and look back at the moments that got him here. This isn’t an interview. This is a conversation between two people who were friends with dreams — mine of one day writing for a place like ESPN, and his of being one of the most dominant forces in sports. We talked about Davidson moments that shaped him and the decadelong journey to where he is now. This isn’t Stephen Curry. This is Stephen.


Hey, man, trade deadline expired about an hour ago. Congratulations on making it through. The Warriors didn’t trade you this year.

(Laughs.) Oh, I was locked into The Jump Trade Edition trying to make sure I made it through.

What does it feel like, coming back to Charlotte for an All-Star Game 10 years later? Where’s your mind right now?

I’m extremely excited. All-Star Weekend in general is usually fun. … Every city has something unique to offer. I know Kemba [Walker] is hosting in Charlotte. He’ll be playing for the Hornets and whatnot, but unofficially it’s like a little mini homecoming where I get all the sights and sounds and familiar faces.

When I graduated from Davidson in ’08, after the Elite Eight run, people were asking, ‘What’s that Steph guy going to do in the league?’ And I’d say, ‘He’s going to play forever because he can shoot, right? And he’s going to make some All-Star Games.’

That was a kind of crazy prediction back then.

Now it’s 10 years later and you’ve got a couple of MVPs, some championships. What did you think you’d be at this point?

My whole goal going in was I want to play 16 years, just like my pops. He set the bar; that’s what I want to get to, but do it my way. I guess I fell in love with the moment and spreading that joy in myself, working on my game and trying to figure out just how to win in the league, and focus. It was a hard lesson to learn my first two years. I’ve exceeded my imagination. … It’s kind of surreal to be where I’m at, [and] now to be back in Charlotte … but I’ve still got a lot to accomplish. Obviously, I’m in my prime, so the story’s still going, but it’s just crazy to think that I was outside of the [Davidson College] Belk [computer] lab on the phone with Ayesha trying to find out if I was even going to enter the draft.

“One thing I do technically regret, in terms of how fast this all came, is when I brought Riley on the podium.”

I remember [April 23, 2009] you texting me when you decided to enter the league. You were like, ‘I’m in the library, and I don’t really know why.’

(Laughs.) Bro, yes! That night I was still writing a paper or something. A sociology paper, I think. Pulling an all-nighter, just confused. I don’t know why I was doing my paper at the time, trying to figure out what I’m going to do with my life. I finally decided … to make that jump. And obviously, everybody knows how much I love Davidson, how hard it was to leave, but looking back, that obviously was the right decision.

And I always think about the end of your freshman year, when we were in [Curry’s Davidson teammates] Lamar Hull and Boris Meno’s room.

Yup.

Every Friday or Saturday night, [all of us] freestyling, listening to Lil Wayne. My dream was to be writing stuff at ESPN, and now I’m doing that. About you winning MVPs in the NBA. Back then, in Lamar’s room, nobody could imagine that any of these things would be happening.

One of my favorite stories is when I was passing out tickets to freshman dorm rooms, knocking on doors and stuff, trying to get people to come to games. Everybody’s reaction was so subdued and chill … everybody was sort of reserved about everything. It’s surreal to be having the conversation we’re having and doing the things we’re doing, representing ourselves and our school. That’s what makes the whole story so unique … humble beginnings.

Instagram Photo

What’s interesting about you that other players don’t really have at the top levels of the NBA, especially when I think about, like, LeBron James or Kevin Durant, is that they knew really young that they were going to be NBA players. That seemed not to be the case with you. When did you realize you were definitely doing this?

When I went to Davidson, that was my goal, but I didn’t really know. It wasn’t like a chess game where I would position everything so that I could be an NBA player. I was able to have a ‘normal’ college experience where it’s just about playing ball, hanging out with my teammates, going to school. Then we go to the [2008 Elite Eight] tournament run, we lose to Kansas, and the first question I get after … is, ‘Yo, are you declaring for the draft?’ And I’m like, ‘What?’ Like, ‘No. What are you talking about?’

That was a genuine response, because it wasn’t necessarily on my radar like that. I was just playing ball. Then, between my sophomore and junior year, that’s when I first really started to assess my game in terms of being an NBA player and understanding what I needed to work on if I want to get drafted. But even so … I hesitated when it came down to making the decision. … It wasn’t like I wasn’t destined to make that jump, but in my head it was still a question mark. It took me a while to get there and to get committed.

But then when I finished my rookie year, I was trying to catch up to Tyreke Evans for that Rookie of the Year verdict … playing 40-plus minutes every game, so I really felt like I had complete control … in terms of knowing what type of player I wanted to be. And you kind of imagine that player to be an All-Star type of guy. I just had ultimate confidence at that point towards the end of that rookie year. But at first, at Davidson, I was able to just enjoy basketball without the NBA cloud over my head.

Obviously, you’re not an underdog anymore. Does that make you think back to the days when you had nothing to lose? Did you enjoy that more?

Nah, once you get to that championship level, you understand what that feels like to be the best in the world at something. You’re right, my whole motivation, and my process [back then], was really identifying with the underdog mentality. Now, it’s an entirely different experience from one that I had and love, but I love it now too.

Now, when we’re trying to go for three [championships] in a row, there’s media drama, free-agency drama, inner squad stuff we’re going through. … It’s all because we’ve been at the height of our game and people will try to pick us apart, trying to find cracks in the armor. … It’s because we’re playing for something that matters. I love being in that situation every year — and I hope that doesn’t end anytime soon.

I remember we went to an All-Star Game in Houston, what, six years ago?

I was down there for the 3-point shootout.

We were able to go to the game together. You were able to walk across the street to the game from the hotel by yourself, essentially, with no problem or fanfare. That was just six years ago.

That was the last time that I actually didn’t make the All-Star. I remember the ’fit I had: the three-piece suit without the jacket with the nonprescription glasses and this stupid hat that Ayesha made me wear. We got to walk two blocks from the hotel to the game. Maybe one person said, ‘What’s up?’ But it wasn’t like it is now at all. I wanted to go to the game just to get that experience. It definitely sucked not making it, but that was motivation. That’s probably the last time that happened, where I could be incognito, I guess. But now, I think Ayesha, she’s more recognizable than I am at this point. It’s pretty crazy, the difference in the last few years.

Then, a few years later, you’re getting called out by the president.

Right.

That seemed to take people by surprise. It seemed people didn’t expect that you have these ideals that you stick to. When we were together at Davidson, I saw a bit of that mindset develop. How did that evolve to the point of where you felt comfortable speaking out against the president?

It’s mostly just being around like-minded people, people that were even bolder than I ever was in terms of speaking up for what they believe, speaking up for black students in a majority-white student body. I gladly helped spread the message of what we were fighting for on campus. To be honest, I’m not just saying this because I’m talking to you, but the way that you and [poet, author and Davidson alum] Clint [Smith] and other people that I see that I still follow on social media — and how you guys use your voice and your wisdom, education, and just how articulate — you guys are consistent in speaking up. That … emboldens me to … use the platform I have … when it comes to going to the White House or not, making those decisions, and trying to go see President Barack Obama and things that he has going on in the community, trying to just respond in different ways to make a difference.

That all started at Davidson. Just … being around people that inspire me … that’s where the seed was planted … and we all branched out into our respective worlds. We continue in that fight, so I’m going to stay on that mission in any way that I can.

A lot of athletes feel hesitant about the possible backlash of saying the wrong thing, but you speak with confidence in these situations.

I’m not going to please everybody. In terms of the international world of politics … that comes with the territory. And where sports and politics kind of cross over, just in terms of [us having] a microphone in our face every single day. They’re asking us questions about what we believe. You can obviously shy away from it if you want to. You can play it safe. I still want to make sure I’m very educated on what I’m talking about, which is why I don’t talk about everything. As NBA players, we live in a bubble. … Our lifestyle’s a little different, and you have to make sure you stay plugged in, because we all have families, we all come from communities that real stuff is happening [in] and have to support to make sure you stay in tune.

Instagram Photo


You got married around when I did, and I think Riley is a couple months older than my son? So whenever I see you, it’s always about family and how crazy this family experience is.

It’s been an amazing journey. I never thought when I met Ayesha at the end of my sophomore year … I didn’t know where my life would lead me. It’s funny … she had no basketball, sports background at all and knew nothing about the NBA … so we were wet behind the ears in terms of not knowing what we were getting into. And every step of the way, everything that’s happened, we kind of dealt with it together, and it’s helped us mature a lot faster than we … expected. I think even as parents, understanding how we’re going to raise kids not only in this crazy society we live in but one that we’re so visible [in], and people are kind of locked into every step we take, every word we say. One thing I do technically regret in terms of how fast this all came is when I brought Riley on the podium [during the 2015 NBA Finals].

Oh, yeah.

I’ve always wanted to … share what I get to do, and all the experiences I have, with my family. I didn’t know how much that would blow up and how much of a splash she [would make] on the scene. If I could take that one back, I probably would, just because my goal is just to … give my kids the best chance at success and at seeing the world in the proper way … trying to give our kids the best chance to be successful and have a normal life in terms of treating people the right way, having respect, not getting too bigheaded and feeling like everything’s about them. The lessons I’m teaching my kids right now at ages 6, 3 and 7 months, it’s wild to think about. Surreal.

What is a lesson in basketball, or parenting, or activism, whatever, that you could tell 2009 Stephen Curry?

This is almost too on the nose for what’s going on right now, but find out who you are quick, because that’s the foundation … and the thing that you rely on no matter if things are going your way or not, if you reach your goals or not. Find out who you are, be comfortable with it, embrace it and let that be the most consistent thing that you can … rely on. I’d say, just the hoopla and craziness that’s happened these last 10 years, there were plenty of opportunities for me to kind of lose my mind, lose my sense of self and lose a sense of reality. It’s just wild to think about what’s thrown at us on the daily that we kind of have to kind of roll with. These wins and losses and championships, it’s important, it’s what we work our a– off for, but in the grand scheme of things, is it that serious for it to change who you are? I hope to have accomplished that and hope to keep on that path.

Phil Freelon, America’s most prominent black architect, designs for the culture The ‘Blacksonian,’ Atlanta’s civil rights center — and a Durham bus station — are all part of his legacy

It was a brisk early afternoon in January, and I was sitting in a van in Durham, North Carolina, with Phil Freelon, arguably the most prominent working African-American architect in the country. Freelon is best known for designing the National Museum of African American History and Culture and other major museum projects — among them Atlanta’s National Center for Civil Rights, San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora, and Charlotte’s Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. But on this day, we were admiring, of all things, a bus station.

“If you go around the country and visit bus stations, they’re usually seedy and dirty,” he said. “But they don’t have to be.”

And the Durham Station Transportation Center, which Freelon designed, wouldn’t be out of place on the gilded campuses of Apple or Google. The center, which opened in 2008, has a glass exterior topped by a sleek metal roof sloped like a beret, covering an airy, minimalist interior lounge and ticketing area.

“In my career, I’ve learned that if you build something beautiful, people will respect it,” he said. “You’ll notice there’s no graffiti. Now, I don’t think everyone going to catch a bus looks around and says, ‘Wow, this is a beautiful building.’ But I think they soak in the ambiance, and I’m happy about that.”

Durham Station Transportation Center

James West/J West Productions LLC

The paradox of architecture is that it’s all around us, and yet, for many people, the profession remains esoteric. “If you have a talented young African-American, their family will likely know a lawyer, doctor, teacher or a clergyman, but not an architect,” Freelon said. “My parents, who were both college-educated, didn’t know an architect of any color, and certainly not a black one.

“Diversity is a huge problem in our profession. The profession is small — there are only 110,000 licensed architects in the United States, compared to 1 million attorneys and 800,000 physicians. And only 2 percent of architects are African-Americans, a lower ratio than with lawyers and doctors.”

Freelon, 65, has attempted to change that on several fronts: through his hiring practices, visits to predominantly minority schools to speak about his work, and the establishment in 2016 of the Freelon Fellowship, which provides financial aid so a student from an underrepresented group can attend the Harvard Graduate School of Design. And since he founded his eponymous firm in 1990, much of his work has been focused on designing libraries and other academic buildings for historically black colleges and universities and cultural projects in traditionally black neighborhoods.

Currently he’s involved with a major expansion of the Motown Museum in Detroit, a mile-long open-air museum along Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles and the North Carolina Freedom Park in downtown Raleigh. “He’s designed nearly every major museum or public space dedicated to black culture in the United States,” Fast Company magazine observed when it named Freelon its Architect of the Year in 2017.

“Of course, you don’t just wake up one morning and the Smithsonian wants you to build a museum,” Freelon said. “There’s 30 years of work that leads up to that.”


Before he had ever met an architect, Freelon had decided to become one. He grew up in Philadelphia, where his mother was a school administrator and his father was a salesperson for Cordis, a Miami-based medical device manufacturer. Freelon attended Central High School, an academically rigorous, predominantly white, all-boys magnet school, which also produced the famed architect Louis Kahn. Citing the influence of his grandfather, Allan Randall Freelon Sr., a Harlem Renaissance-era painter, Freelon said he was drawn to classes in the visual arts, as well as drafting and design. He also took inspiration from his strolls through the city, visiting the Franklin Institute and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Only later,” Freelon said, “did I learn that a black architect, Julian Abele, helped design the museum,” including the iconic steps featured in Rocky.

Freelon had his mind set on attending a historically black college or university (HBCU) and enrolled at Hampton University in Virginia. “It was the height of the civil rights movement and Black Power, and I had an Afro and was very socially engaged,” he said.

Freelon plowed through the curriculum. “He was an excellent student, meticulous and curious,” said John Spencer, chairman of the architecture department, whom Freelon credits as his first mentor. Believing he would be more challenged at a larger university, Freelon transferred to North Carolina State, although he was anxious about moving deeper into the South. “When my father used to attend his company’s annual conference in Miami in the ’60s, he couldn’t stay in the downtown hotels and would stay in the black neighborhood of Overtown,” Freelon recalled. But a visit to Raleigh reassured him.

“At N.C. State, Phil and I were two of only a handful of black students at the College of Design, and there weren’t any black professors in our discipline,” recalled Percy Hooper, now an associate professor of industrial design at N.C. State. “We didn’t feel segregated from the white students, but we ended up spending a lot of time together, supporting one another.” The coursework was demanding, and there wasn’t a lot of downtime. To unwind, the friends would ride their bikes or, more ill-advisedly, toss around ninja stars.

During summers, Freelon worked for a professor at the Durham-based architectural firm of John D. Latimer and Associates and continued at the firm’s Taunton, Massachusetts, office while pursuing a master’s degree at MIT, which he completed in 1977. He worked briefly for a large firm, 3/D International in Houston, before returning to Durham to join O’Brien Atkins Associates, where he soon became the firm’s youngest partner.

“I’ve learned that if you build something beautiful, people will respect it.”

Freelon helped design schools, churches and other buildings around the state. “As a young architect, you’re not a specialist and you tackle a wide variety of projects.” A significant step in his career, he said, was being tapped as lead designer for Terminal 2 of the Raleigh-Durham International Airport. “Of course, it’s since been demolished and rebuilt,” he said, chuckling. “At this stage of my career, there are a few buildings that I’ve designed that have been torn down.” (He later designed an award-winning parking garage at the airport, as well as the airport’s general aviation building.)

In 1989, Freelon received a fellowship to study independently for a year at Harvard. The next year, he left O’Brien Atkins to launch his own firm, the Freelon Group. It began as a one-man shop and grew to more than 50 employees, about 40 percent of whom are women and 30 percent people of color.

“When I decided to start my own practice, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do and not do,” Freelon said. “I wasn’t going to design prisons, strip malls or casinos. The work that excited me were schools, libraries and similar projects that positively impacted the community.” Freelon also said he had little interest in upscale residential projects, the multimillion-dollar homes that fill the pages of Dwell and Architectural Digest, the ubiquitous coffee table magazines of the aspiring bourgeoisie. “The only home I’ve ever built is my own,” he said.


Phil and Nnenna Freelon in 2015

Lissa Gotwals

One afternoon, I joined Freelon and his wife, Nnenna, at their suburban home, a 15-minute drive from downtown Durham. The modern, two-story structure with a matching separate studio space features a warm combination of concrete, steel, glass and laminate siding. The sloped lot abuts a pond and runs the length of a football field. There’s a long path from the house to a fire pit and a steel animal sculpture that the Freelons named Kareem Abdul-Giraffe.

Inside, the New Standard Quintet, a Chicago jazz group, played on the stereo while the couple’s dog, Count Basie, perched by the couch. Earlier, Freelon had told me how he met his wife. Nnenna, a Massachusetts native, was finishing her undergraduate degree at Simmons University in Boston. She was on a visit to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where she was considering pursuing a graduate degree in health care administration. A mutual friend introduced them. “We met on our friend’s front porch, and for me it really was love at first sight,” Phil Freelon said. It was a swift courtship. With only her undergraduate thesis to complete, Nnenna moved to North Carolina, they got married and she quickly became pregnant. She put graduate school on hold and eventually turned to her first love, jazz singing, and is now a six-time Grammy Award nominee.

“Phil is one of those lucky people who always knew what he wanted to do,” Nnenna Freelon said. “For most of us, it’s more circuitous. I was blessed to have a husband who was passionate about what he did and wanted me to find what I was passionate about.”

For a globe-trotting professional singer and star architect, Durham isn’t an obvious home base. Why not New York, Los Angeles or Chicago? “When you have kids, your life changes,” Phil Freelon said. “We figured we could live here and get in an airplane and go where we needed to go. I’m a huge family guy, and I love being a father. That was most important.” The Freelons have three children, who all live nearby. Deen Freelon, the oldest, is a tenured professor at the UNC School of Media and Journalism. Maya Freelon Asante is a visual artist. And Pierce Freelon, the youngest, is an activist and former Durham mayoral candidate who runs Blackspace, an after-school entrepreneurship and social media program for disadvantaged youths.

“I wasn’t going to design prisons, strip malls or casinos. The work that excited me were schools, libraries and similar projects that positively impacted the community.”

“It’s been impressive what Phil has done here,” said Kevin Montgomery, the African-American president of O’Brien Atkins whom Freelon recruited to that firm in 1988. “He was able to develop a firm in a midsize market that has global recognition and can compete with much larger firms in places like New York and Chicago.”

That proved to be the case with the Smithsonian museum, a project, Freelon said, that was more than a decade in the making. A couple of years after his Museum of the African Diaspora opened in 2005 in San Francisco, Freelon teamed up with New York’s Max Bond to win a contract from the Smithsonian to complete the planning and pre-design work for the African-American museum on the National Mall. A year later, the Smithsonian announced an international design competition, and Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye approached Freelon and Bond about joining forces.

“David is the highest-profile architect of African descent in the world, and we had our eyes out for what he was going to do for the competition,” Freelon said. “We met and determined we had similar approaches and values, so the team was expanded.” They also added another firm, Washington-based SmithGroup, which had previously done work for the Smithsonian. More than 60 groups, representing firms throughout the world, sought the commission. The Smithsonian eventually culled the field to six, provided them with stipends and asked them to produce designs within 60 days.

Team members from Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup, who designed the winning concept for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, meet with members of the Smithsonian Institution: (from left to right) Hall David, Peter Cook, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture Lonnie Bunch, David Adjaye, Phil Freelon and Smithsonian secretary Wayne Clough in front of a model of the winning design in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 2009.

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

“We were competing against all these starchitects,” Freelon said, including I.M. Pei, Norman Foster and Moshe Safdie. A committee composed of members of the Smithsonian, the architectural press and academics picked the Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup design.

When the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in 2016, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne hailed the building’s “powerful strangeness” that “embraces memory and aspiration, protest and reconciliation, pride and shame.” He continued, “The museum’s skin — has that typically benign architectural term ever been more charged? — allows it to stand apart from the Mall’s white-marble monuments like a rebuke.” The most recent accolade came in January, when the American Institute of Architects named the museum one of nine winners of its 2019 Honor Awards.

During the opening ceremonies, which included a Kennedy Center performance by Nnenna, Freelon was walking with a cane. He’d experienced leg troubles the previous year, although at first he didn’t think much of it. “I was run-down anyway, because 2015 was an intense year,” he said. Not only was he finishing the museum, he was also teaching at MIT. He had also just completed a merger of his firm with the global architecture powerhouse Perkins + Will, which had been courting Freelon for more than a decade. Freelon now oversaw the firm’s North Carolina operations from Durham.

“It wasn’t just that Phil was a superstar — and he really is the Michael Jordan of architecture,” said Perkins + Will CEO Phil Harrison. “We wanted Phil because of his design sensibility, which is modern but not cold. There’s a real humanism you can see in all his work. And with his staff you see a real diversity, not just in demographics but in thinking.”

When Freelon traveled to D.C., he would jog around the Mall to stay in shape. “I noticed I’d use the same effort, but it was taking me longer and longer to complete my course, and my right foot was dragging.”

After meeting with several doctors, Freelon was referred to Richard Bedlack, who heads Duke University’s Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Clinic. Freelon was diagnosed with ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which is progressive and incurable. It attacks the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord and in time results in total paralysis and, ultimately, death — typically within two to four years after the diagnosis.

Freelon was “shocked and disappointed,” he said, and there was a brief period of denial. But after a few months, Freelon told his staff and took a month off to ponder his future. “But I decided to go back and work full time,” he said. Now, he uses a heavy electric wheelchair and works less and mainly from home. He remains on the Perkins + Will board of directors and is closely involved in ongoing projects.

“I’m an optimist by nature, and I look at my prognosis as a glass half full,” Freelon said. “I’m relieved I was able to raise my children and have a career and family.”


Architect Phil Freelon at the offices of Perkins + Will in Durham, North Carolina.

Endia Beal for The Undefeated

One can drive a mile in almost any direction around Durham and come across a building Freelon designed. With his sister-in-law Debbie Pierce driving Freelon’s customized van, we visited the Durham Bulls’ Athletic Park, home to the country’s most famous minor league baseball team featured in the movie Bull Durham; the Durham County Human Services Building, an airy, glass structure with a huge courtyard that replaced a grim, Soviet-style bureaucratic bunker; and several science buildings on the campuses of North Carolina Central, an HBCU, and Duke University.

Few professions offer their practitioners a chance to leave a physical legacy, and I offered to Freelon that he must feel proud as we revisited his creations. He laughed and alluded to a famous Frank Lloyd Wright quote: “A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines.”

Of course, Freelon didn’t view his works as mistakes. He was being self-deprecating. But it was also significant that on our tour he insisted I visit a few buildings he didn’t design.

We parked in front of Duke University Chapel, a majestic Gothic structure with a 210-foot-tall bell tower. The chapel, along with other significant structures on Duke’s campus, including Cameron Stadium, was designed by Julian Abele, an African-American architect who was the chief designer for the Philadelphia firm of Horace Trumbauer. “The story goes that when Abele came down here to do site work he had to dress up in overalls and pretend he was a common laborer or he wouldn’t have been allowed on campus,” Freelon said. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the university formally acknowledged Abele’s contributions, placing a portrait of the architect in the lobby of the main administration building and naming the main campus quad Abele Quad.

Later, we pulled in front of a small church in a historically African-American neighborhood. Opened in 1931, it was originally a church for the deaf, who were recruited to work in Durham’s noisy cigarette manufacturing plants. More recently, it had been rented to various congregations. Eventually, it was put up for sale and Phil and Nnenna Freelon purchased it. We went inside, where workers were renovating the space. Freelon had hired a friend who had more experience with such work to be the architect.

The Freelons created a nonprofit, North Star Church of the Arts, to operate the building as a community space. (An inaugural service will be held Feb. 17.) “We’ll have spoken-word nights, after-school programs, maybe some weddings and other ceremonies,” Freelon said. “We just want to give back to the community.”

We were in the back of the church. The pews had been pulled out and stacked to the side, and we looked toward an imaginary dais.

Freelon has been involved in building celebrated structures that will last for many years. The Smithsonian museum likely will survive as long as our republic. But here he was inside a humble church that he didn’t even design, smiling. “Nnenna and I wanted this to be our legacy project,” he said.

IHOP or IHOb? Marketing move leaves a bad taste with black students When it comes to breakfast, burgers or brunch, Waffle House still wins

It’s 2 a.m. on a Saturday, you just left the party, you’ve sweated out your clothes, you got that girl’s or guy’s number you’ve been dancing with all night and now you are so hungry that it feels like your stomach is touching your back.

We’ve all been here before.

This is a typical night for many college students who choose to go out with their friends on the weekend. And for those students, the remedy to the 2 a.m. munchies boils down to a few popular restaurant chains: Waffle House, IHOP, Sonic and maybe a local diner close to their campus.

But early Monday, one of those restaurant chains decided to go in a new direction that could significantly affect its competition for college students. IHOP decided to temporarily change its branding from “the International House of Pancakes” to the International House of Burgers” or IHOb. The marketing strategy by the popular restaurant chain is an effort to be known as a place to get lunch and dinner, not just breakfast and brunch.

After the announcement, black students went into an uproar on social media. Some even said that they would “pass” on the restaurant entirely after this branding shift.

While some students were shocked by the unexpected move, others said the new marketing approach would be insignificant for IHOP’s or “IHOb’s” brand in the long run.

“People will always go to IHOP to get their pancakes first and foremost,“ said Chris Edwards, a recent TV broadcast and film grad from Elon University. “The menu had burgers before and no one liked them, so unless they’ve done something drastic to the flavors, then this campaign was a waste.“

“They aren’t taking anything away. The usual customers can still get what they regularly order and new customers can try something new, and if they don’t like it they can just stick to the pancakes,“ said Isaiah Stewart, a junior at North Carolina A&T University. “I think it’s kind of like putting on jewelry; it doesn’t have to make the fit, but it could help.“

So far, it doesn’t seem like it has. Public perception of the brand’s move has been met with not only bewilderment but also a Twitter backlash from lots of black college students.

“I thought it was stupid and unnecessary to go from a breakfast establishment to having a focus on burgers. One percent of all customers go to IHOP to purchase a burger, so why make this big of a change?” said Janae Adams, a senior at Clark Atlanta University. “IHOP is where people go on Sunday after church for breakfast. That’ll hurt business.“

The disapproval has only seemed to lengthen the gap between IHOP and one of its main competitors, Waffle House, which lots of black students already prefer because it’s cheaper and offers a different vibe for their post-party munchies.

“Waffle House is the superior 24-hour restaurant that will serve you anything and everything for a cheap price,” said Edwards. “You want waffles, hash browns and a burger at 3 a.m.? They got you already. People already know that they have solid burgers if you really want something different, so it’s not even worth talking about.”

What is worth talking about, however, is how detrimental this marketing campaign will be for IHOP as it watches some of its young black consumers go elsewhere for their late-night meal.

Don’t hate on black graduation ceremony at Harvard University Undergrads participated this year, but other schools have been doing it for years

A year-old article about Harvard University’s first black graduation ceremony resurfaced this week and caused a ruckus on social media.

The Ivy League university actually hosted its second black grad ceremony Tuesday at Radcliffe Yard. Similar to what took place in 2017, the event was sponsored by the Harvard Black Students Association and was designed to honor the achievements of black graduating students. No degrees were conferred during this ceremony; that practice is reserved for the school’s general commencement activities Thursday.

Jillian Simons, co-president of the Harvard Black Graduate Student Alliance, helped plan the event. Last year, only grad students participated in the ceremony, but all students were allowed to attend. Simi Falako, president of the Harvard Black Students Association and a human developmental and regenerative biology major, confirmed that senior undergraduates were included this year. In an email, she also acknowledged that the planning committee used the criticism from last year’s event to improve this year’s. Some tweeted support or defended the event.

It’s hard to tell if this is just an issue of not reading beyond a year-old provocative headline like “Harvard will host first-ever black only graduation” or an issue of understanding the difference between honoring the experiences and accomplishments of a group that shares something such as race, religion or sexual orientation, and racism. The former usually takes the form of an optional, one-day event designed to uplift and unify a particular group, culture or orientation, like Greek Jewish Festivals, Pride parades or girls’ night out. The latter uses economic, social and legislative restrictions to enforce the supremacy of one group over another.

The need and desire for culture-specific graduation ceremonies are not new or even unique to Harvard University. Syracuse University hosted its first black graduation ceremony in 2004, the University of Southern California initiated its in 1999 and Stanford established its black graduation ceremony more than 40 years ago. Columbia University, UC Berkeley and the University of Washington also host ceremonies. At each university, the ceremony is designed to honor the accomplishment of black students, but any student who registers may participate.

Fanta Cherif, graduating senior and head of the 2018 Black Graduation Committee, said Syracuse’s black graduation event has not encountered the same backlash as Harvard’s. She was surprised it took so long for the prestigious Ivy League school to establish the ceremony.

“Every PWI [predominantly white institution] should have one,” she remarked. The only issues she encountered were that the school did not provide any funding for the event, nor did any high-ranking school officials attend.

So black graduations are not anti-anyone. They just celebrate black students, their accomplishments, experiences and supporters at schools where the main or department ceremony might not give them a more intimate opportunity to do so.

Black graduates celebrate for ourselves, our families and the culture, so leave us alone Our celebrations are ones of hope, release and immeasurable joy that sometimes can’t be contained

May 20, 2018, will be enshrined in my memory.

That’s the day I, along with more than 400 of my Morehouse brothers, start the rest of our lives. Families will cry, laugh, celebrate and everything in between. All the late nights, epic battles with financial aid and seemingly spiteful teachers have led to the very moment that our names are called. In the very brief interval of time it takes to walk across the graduation stage and shake hands with whoever is presiding, I expect to see strolls, hops, re-enactments of iconic memes and much more.

It’s a very brief yet monumental moment that belongs solely to the student.

Or at least it should.

For a number of black students who graduated from the University of Florida on May 7, this special moment was taken from them. After being assigned the job of “monitoring the flow of graduates,” a university faculty member took it upon himself to forcibly remove 21 primarily black graduates mid-celebration. White graduates, on the other hand, were permitted to do all sorts of gymnastics.

I was appalled. My heart immediately dropped because I knew how much preparation went into each celebration. The level of thought that college graduates have given to that moment is immeasurable.

For most of the class of 2018, graduation has been marked on our calendars for years. We’ve planned our outfits, decorated our caps and taken hundreds of graduation photos. The thought of receiving a diploma has been replayed thousands of times from the minute we stepped on campus; the celebration is just the cherry on top.

There’s a line in Jay Electronica’s “We Made It (Freestyle)” where he raps,

But they can’t relate to our struggle, my n—a
We came up from slavery
.

Based solely on the faculty member’s behavior, it’s evident that he lacked the empathy necessary to understand.

The celebration represents a battle cry, one designed to announce your presence to the world. In a society that has grown accustomed to seeing black men fail, graduating from a four-year college shows an unparalleled resiliency that runs deep within our veins.

We weren’t supposed to be here. For well over 300 years, my ancestors were brought here in chains against their will. They’ve survived the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Reconstruction and Jim Crow. Yet, the ramifications of racism can still be felt today, as evidenced by the 24 percent disparity between the graduation rates of blacks and whites.

Each graduate provides a sense of hope — specifically that our community is one step closer to achieving some level of racial equality, wealth and power. A diploma allows black students to remove a layer of the stigma that has been attached to us since birth. The celebration walk is a moment of release.

I appreciate the University of Florida president’s apology for the inappropriately aggressive treatment of the graduates, but it won’t erase the memory of being shoved offstage. My advice? Set a time limit. By no means is that unreasonable; thousands of students, regardless of race or gender, deserve to have their moment to shine. Consider giving a signal, not a shove, if students are taking too long.

‘Atlanta’ recap: Rule No. 7 in Biggie’s ’10 Crack Commandments’ rules Earn and Paper Boi The elephant is no longer in the room — if Paper Boi becomes a huge star, it’s going to be without Earn

Season 2, Episode 9 | “North of the Border” | April 26

This rule is so underrated / Keep your family and your business completely separated.

The Notorious B.I.G., “10 Crack Commandments” (1997)

Well, it finally happened. It finally happened. In a divorce that’s been building all season, Earn and Alfred (Paper Boi) are no more. Good.

In this “Robbin’ Season,” it’s Earn who is the victim, and as with the entire season, it’s about more than a physical theft. Think about it this way: In season two, Earn has lost his “home” (the storage unit where he sleeps), his girlfriend, Van (who was the only positive thing going for him), and now his job (which he was never good at anyway).

The premise of the entire episode: Earn is booking Al an unpaid gig on a college campus in Statesboro, presumably Georgia Southern University. Al’s not comfortable with the gig from jump but begrudgingly goes along because of Earn’s insistence that it’ll lead to a bigger spring break payday. But he buries the lead until the last minute — that not only is it unpaid, but they’re also staying in a girl’s dorm room.

Earn doesn’t understand what Al and the rest of us learned last episode: Paper Boi’s celebrity has multiplied to the point where he can’t be living reckless like this. Regardless, Earn, Al, Darius and Tracy (who appoints himself “security” for the small fee of $200) hit the road.

When in doubt, just talk about rap. The disgust is written all over Al’s face.

Not only is the young lady, Violet, more than willing to let Paper Boi stay in her room. Not only does she obviously want to have sex with him. Not only is there a footprint on the ceiling. But she tells him of a dream she had in which she (a crocodile) eats Al (a crane) and a powerful light shoots through her belly. But all of this could have easily been avoided if Earn wasn’t so cheap.

Things go to hell in gasoline pajamas at the gig when Violet catches him talking to two other coeds who are fans of his music. She pours beer on him. This prompts security (i.e., Tracy) to push her down the stairs. Earn catches her before she falls, but the damage is done. They leave, but not before being confronted by an angry mob of black students who want revenge for Violet’s near-tragic fall. Earn attempts to defuse the situation, but Tracy sets it off by knocking out the mob’s leader. The Flabbergasted Four run through campus until they’re “safe,” ending up at a white frat house.

By now, Al is pissed. He’s not getting paid. He didn’t even get a chance to perform. And all he wants is some weed — which he finds at the frat house, plus a lot more. White fraternities, especially in the South, have always been an odd topic, and the contrast here, with the pajama jam, is vivid.

There’s a dark and powerful symbolism at play as Al and Earn part ways in the shadow of the Confederate flag.

For one, the white frat had no clue the black student union was even having a party on campus — a sign of just how segregated the campus is. But they offer to smoke Al out, which is all he really wants. Interestingly enough, there’s a large sign with the year “1863” outside the house — the year Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The next thing we see is Al, Darius, Earn and Tracy sitting in a living room. A large Confederate flag is behind them, and naked pledges are in front of them.

One of the frat bros talks to Al about his deep love of Southern rap, in particular UGK. In part because Al is a recognizable rapper these days, but also because the frat bro felt like the only thing he could talk to him about was rap. The conversation is familiar for any black person who has ever been in the same uncomfortable position. When in doubt, just talk about rap. The disgust is written all over Al’s face.

It’s when the pledges leave, and Darius and Tracy go see “the gun room,” that Al and Earn have the conversation that’s been bubbling to the surface.

“I think we need to talk about the real problem,” Al says. Earn thinks it’s Tracy, whom he blames for the entire night going astray. But that’s just Earn once again either being oblivious to his own ineptitude or scared to hold himself accountable for the trip’s comedy of errors. Earn has repeatedly tried to game the process, only to come out on the short end of the stick.

Yet there’s a dark and powerful symbolism at play as Al and Earn part ways in the shadow of the Confederate flag. The foursome return to the dorm the next morning to find their bags on the front lawn, their clothes destroyed, their car damaged and Earn’s laptop stolen. In a fit of rage, Earn pulls the fire alarm.

What exactly were Alfred and Darius beefing over in the first episode?

The episode ends with Earn attempting to fight Tracy. He’s blaming Tracy, but really Earn is coming to grips with the fact that nothing in his life is going right. He demands Al pull the car over — a moment hilariously reminiscent of this Family Guy scene. Nevertheless, Tracy easily washes Earn, punching him repeatedly then dropping him on his face. A battered and bruised Earn stumbles back to the car as the credits roll.

What’s interesting about “North of the Border” is that it’s the first episode all season that ties in to previous ones. Until now, each episode lived on its own. The Band-Aid on Al’s nose is a subtle homage to last week’s “Woods.” Al mentioning how he wants a manager like Clark County’s dates back to earlier interactions. Dots are beginning to connect as the season, presumably, draws to a conclusion. Maybe soon we’ll find out the answer to a mystery that’s been bothering fans all season: What exactly were Alfred and Darius beefing over in the first episode?

As anti-gun violence protesters converge on Washington, football great Calvin Hill recalls the teenage activists of the civil rights movement Today’s teenage activists follow in the footsteps of African-Americans in the ‘60s

Legendary Dallas Cowboys running back Calvin Hill remembers how he came to understand what he was fighting for during the civil rights movement. He grew up outside Baltimore and was bused to a segregated elementary school before attending an elite private high school in the Bronx, New York, where he was one of only five black students.

“The day we marched on Washington” in 1963, Hill was 16. “There was such a spirit of people just hugging and joining hands and singing together, I thought segregation was going to end, you know, that day,” he recalled.

On Saturday, more than half a million people are expected to gather in downtown Washington, D.C., for the March for Our Lives anti-gun violence rally, and a great many of them will be young. The demonstration was conceived after last month’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of teenager-led protests that have gained high-profile friends, enemies and national attention. But this is not the first time the nation has witnessed the power of youth activism. This anti-gun violence movement mirrors a protest tradition that decades ago recognized the moral sway of children who put their bodies, and often their lives, on the frontlines of a changing nation.

“If you look at what the civil rights movement was, it wasn’t necessarily about blacks wanting to go to school with whites. It was about wanting to have equal resources and equal opportunities,” said Hill, 71, a consultant for player development for the Cowboys who lives with his wife, Janet, in Great Falls, Virginia. And that desire fueled a movement of African-Americans, including some who were very young, who filled the streets of the nation.

It’s an era that the four-time Pro Bowler and first Cowboy to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season (not to mention the father of former NBA All-Star Grant Hill) remembers well. He grew up with the signposts, totems, deprivations and dangers of Jim Crow segregation. Hill often visited relatives in South Carolina, and as a youngster he thought perhaps ginger ale flowed from “Whites Only” water fountains. One day, with his cousins as lookouts, he took a sip from one, then dashed around the corner.

When his cousins clamored to know what white water tasted like, Hill told them, “I think it tastes just like the water in the other fountain.” He remembers being struck, he says, “by the silliness of the whole thing.”

Later, as a seventh-grader who’d been bused to black schools, he attended a student council meeting at the local all-white high school and was stunned by the quality of the facilities. “They had a gym that looked like a movie theater with permanent seats. We had a gymnasium that became an auditorium when you put seats on the floor.” The white school’s library was three times as big, and it had air conditioners in the windows.

When his cousins clamored to know what water from the white fountain tasted like, Hill told them, “I think it tastes just like the water in the other fountain.”

Hill attended the progressive Riverdale Country School in New York on scholarship for high school. The school invited Martin Luther King Jr. to speak, and husband-and-wife actors and activists Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were friends of some of the parents. The month after the March on Washington, he joined fellow students in New York to protest the church bombing by white supremacists that killed four young African-American girls in Birmingham, Alabama. He also attended sit-ins and protests in Baltimore.

Civil rights leaders made a strategic decision to put young people front and center in the protests to put a visual emphasis, on television and in newspapers, on the evils of segregation, and to demonstrate the implications of civil rights for the future black youth and the soul of the country. The wave of students who answered the call added to the iconography of the movement:

In 1957, the National Guard and a snarling white mob blocked the entrance to Arkansas Central High School by the Little Rock Nine, the youngest of whom was 14.

In the 1963 Birmingham Children’s Crusade, dogs and hoses were turned on children, and the images of them standing up until they fell gained a global audience.

Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, was arrested as a 12-year-old in Birmingham and recalled that when King visited protesters in prison he told them, “What you do this day will have an impact on children yet unborn.”

A 17-year-old civil rights demonstrator, defying an anti-parade ordinance of Birmingham, Ala., is attacked by a police dog on May 3, 1963. On the afternoon of May 4, 1963, during a meeting at the White House with members of a political group, President Kennedy discussed this photo, which had appeared on the front page of that day’s New York Times.

AP Photo/Bill Hudson

Hill was the same age then as the new wave of protesters now converging on Washington, and he calls that need to change what you feel must be changed a natural inclination for those old enough for idealism and too young to be jaded. “To sin by silence when we should protest makes cowards out of men,” Hill said, quoting poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox.

He recalls visiting his grandfather when he was around 7 and, along with another cousin his age, going into a clothing and fabric store with another cousin who was 14. A white teenage girl struck up a conversation with Hill, and he told her she should talk to his teen cousin since “my cousin likes girls.” He then told the teen cousin he should talk to the white girl, since she liked boys. The 14-year-old “immediately got a look on his face and said, ‘Let’s go.’ And when we walked to my grandfather’s house, instead of going along the road, we walked through the woods,” Hill recalled. “And I couldn’t understand why he was doing that.” When they got to the house, he was berated by his aunt, who warned him never to do that again.

Hill thought about that incident when he saw the casket of Emmett Till at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. One of the Four Freedoms that President Franklin D. Roosevelt talked about was the “freedom from fear anywhere … in the world,” Hill said, and that’s part of what young people then and now are fighting for.

The civil rights movement was also filled with young white people who marched and, in some cases, died. The murders of white activists Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24, of New York City, along with black activist James Chaney, 21, caused a national furor. And in the current protest moment, the white activists have gotten younger and have sought to strengthen ties with young black protesters from communities victimized by gun violence. Hill sees their voices as a hopeful sign.

“You see the courage of so many people who are jumping out there instead of just sitting back not saying anything,” he said. “You see it with the young kids in Florida, in the civil rights movement and the anti-war demonstration. You’ve seen it in Black Lives Matter.”

The former football great and civil rights veteran calls all “these movements an effort to move towards the ideals of a more perfect union.” Older people become resigned to the status quo, but it’s the young people who say, “ ‘Hey, this is an issue, and we’re not going to stand for it anymore.’ ”

Many will marvel Saturday when the eyes of the nation turn to the teenage activists who insist against the odds that they can change the world. But among African-Americans, not only has the idea that a child shall lead the way always been the case, in some of our darkest moments, it’s been an article of faith.

‘Tell Them We Are Rising’: Q&A with filmmaker Stanley Nelson The documentary highlighting and celebrating the importance of HBCUs airs Monday night on PBS

Filmmaker Stanley Nelson was on a mission.

After more than 20 years of experience directing and producing, Nelson believed it was time to pay homage to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that have done so much to contribute to the world in which we live today. The 100-plus HBCUs still in existence were the first to extend a warm welcome to black students who sought higher education, and many of the black doctors, lawyers, inventors and civic figures heralded for their work to better mankind were the very students who were first turned away from predominantly white institutions.

Thinking of those who came before him, including his father, who graduated from Howard University, Nelson was prepared to celebrate the successes of HBCUs with compelling storytelling through the eyes of those who have experienced the power of education at black colleges and universities.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities begins with the enslavement of black people, when education was forbidden, and explores the arduous journey individuals took to fight for what others had. The documentary ties these connections to modern-day education and transforms into an explanation of why HBCUs still remain so important to our society. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students enrolled at HBCUs rose by 32 percent between 1976 and 2015. Total enrollment in degree-granting institutions increased by 81 percent, from 11 million to 20 million, during that period.

Tell Them We Are Rising debuts Monday on PBS’ Independent Lens at 9 p.m. ET. Follow the conversation on social media through the hashtag #HBCURising.

The documentary airs tonight. How are you feeling about the nationwide debut of Tell Them We Are Rising?

I’m feeling great. It’s been a year since we premiered at Sundance, so it’s been a year of gearing up to get it seen by a wider audience on TV. It feels great.

How long had the documentary been in the making?

We were probably about three years in production, but probably about five years before that in terms of writing proposals, honing down the idea, and then raising money. And it’s been done for a year. So probably about nine years since the first time I said, hey, let’s do a film about HBCUs, until today. It’s been percolating for a long time.

How were the stories selected?

It was kind of a complicated process. One of the things about this film is that there’s hundreds of great stories of HBCUs, so there’s hundreds of different ways to go. We wanted to tell stories that were dramatic, that were entertaining, that gave an idea of the progression of HBCU history. And there are a couple of stories and ideas that we knew going in that we wanted to cover. So I knew, going in, that I wanted the film to start at the time of enslavement, when education was denied to African-Americans and to set up the idea of the importance of education as something that was denied to African-Americans that became much more important to have that thing that was denied. So there were certain stories like that we knew we wanted to cover. The Howard law school story, the amazing story of it bringing the Brown v. Board of Education suit to fruition. It was a matter of looking for other stories that would help us to tell this long, incredible story of black colleges and universities.

Were there any stories told in the documentary that you wish you could’ve spent more time on?

I think that it all worked out for us. We wanted to tell stories. We didn’t want this to just be a list of a bunch of schools. We went in knowing that what we were telling were short stories. We’re not telling the stories of the killings at Southern in an hourlong documentary. We’re not telling the DuBois-Booker T. story in an hourlong documentary. In some ways, going in, it was freeing to know that I could tell these as short stories.

Were there any stories that didn’t make the cut, but resonated with you?

One thing that happens for me, to be perfectly honest, is that when I finish the film, I kind of don’t think too much about what I didn’t use or couldn’t use or something that I wish I could use. I think, for me, it would just drive me insane to see the film and think about what I wish I could’ve done. So I kind of look at it as a whole. For however my mind works, it’s really good at that. Because I forget. I know stories that we cut, but I don’t feel bad that we cut them. If we had another five hours, we could give you another five hours of stories. I don’t think that you’d want to sit there and watch them, but we could give you those stories.

There are emotions that surface while watching certain scenes. As a producer, director, writer, how do you sort of control your own emotions when piecing these scenes together?

One of the things that happens is you go into producer-director mode and if you know you’re getting something that’s emotional, where the former governor of Louisiana [Edwin Edwards] even today blames the students for getting killed. We know that that was a great piece of film that was really going to help the film. You’re kind of in that other space. I’m a filmmaker, and I realized I was getting something that was going to really serve the production and the film. Inside, I’m not angry. Part of me is just saying, ‘Yes! I’m getting something good here.’ At that point, it’s not about me. It’s about being able to tell this story in a very powerful way to a great number of people.

Later on in the documentary, you have the quote from Richard Robert Wright to Oliver Otis Howard about the plight of former slaves. “Tell them we are rising,” is what Wright said. What about that response spoke so deeply that you wanted to name the documentary after it?

One of the things that happens so many times when you make a film is that sometimes, you have a name going in. You know what you want to call the film before you have the film. Sometimes, you’re in the final stages of editing and you’re still trying to figure out what the name of it is. When we heard that story, we just thought that it embodied so much of the history of black colleges and universities. When the young man told them,”Tell them we are rising,” we thought that was a great title and really kind of had the feeling that we wanted the film to have. The feeling of rising, of positivity, of moving forward.

There’s one point in the documentary where HBCU grads spoke about the type of care and concern teachers showed. It was almost like extended family. Do you think that still exists at HBCUs today?

I think one of the things that HBCUs have done and still do is that they provide a very nurturing environment for their students and that’s been one of the hallmarks for HBCUs since the beginning. That’s something that they still do today. They not only educate, but tell students they can do it. There’s a huge number of students on Pell grants. There’s a huge number of students who are the first generation in their families to attend college. Students are going to need that nurturing, support, that love that they’ll get at HBCUs. It helps them to go forward. In my own family, my father and his brother were the first people to graduate high school. My father went on to Howard and was nurtured there. He was told over and over again that he could do it, that college was for him and he could make it. He went on to the [Howard University College of Dentistry], became a dentist, and is one of the reasons why I’m sitting here talking to you today.

In the 1970s, there were protests at Southern University stemming from financial problems and resources being distributed unevenly. Today, it seems like some of our schools continue that uphill battle. What will it take to preserve these legacies? How can HBCUs survive and thrive?

What I’ve realized today is that we can philosophize about what they need, but really the answer to that is what we can do to support HBCUs. That’s either to support your school or the school of your choice. You can support the Thurgood Marshall College Fund or the United Negro College Fund, which together financially represents the vast majority of HBCUs. Naturally, the question is what can I do to support these HBCUs. And I think it is to give financially. I’m going to do that. I’m going to start tithing my little bit of money per month to HBCUs, and I’ll be glad to do it. I will feel better knowing me and my family give every month to support HBCUs. I think that’s really the answer. We can talk about what HBCUs can do better, but that real question is what we can do as individuals — and collectively?

You’ve visited various HBCU campuses to promote Tell Them We Are Rising. What was that like?

It was crazy. It was great. People came in their school colors and we had standing ovations. What was interesting was that people came from the different cities and towns we were in and also in other school colors, because not everybody in that town went to the same school. People would cheer when their schools came on. The reaction was just wonderful.

These are the schools that I’ve gone to with the film: Howard, Dillard, Jackson State, Virginia State, Fisk, Claflin, Florida A&M, Tennessee State, Texas Southern, Southern, Shaw, Benedict, Morgan State, South Carolina State, Morehouse, Clark Atlanta, Spelman, North Carolina Central and Allen. Those are the schools that I went to. The film also went to many other schools that I didn’t visit myself. It’s been incredible to be on these campuses, to be with the students and faculty, and see the energy and the love the people have for their HBCUs.

I would be exhausted if I were you.

I am! But it’s been great and fun.

What’s next for you?

[Tell Them We Are Rising] is part of a trilogy we’re doing for PBS. The first film was The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. The third is called The Slave Trade: Creating a New World, which is about the Atlantic slave trade and the business of slavery. We’ll be taking a new look at all the incredible new research that’s been done on the slave trade and try to look at it as this business that existed and set so many things that we know today.

How do you balance promotion of this film, and production on the next?

I don’t know how to answer that question. We have a great producer working on the slave trade project. The producer is researching and getting the project off the ground. We’re still raising money for that project and we’re going to go into full production mode pretty soon. We did the same thing with Tell Them We Are Rising. I was running around with the Black Panthers, and we had a great co-producer and co-director named Marco Williams who really worked to do research, get the project off the ground and do a lot of the interviews with this film. As a filmmaker who wants to eat and support a family, it’s not like I can make a film and then stop, wait another year and go on to the next film. I have to figure out how to keep working.

What do you hope the audience takes away from this documentary? Is there one thing you hope resonates more than others?

I hope that the audience is entertained. It’s one of the things we try to do while making these films. Sometimes, they can have a very important and lasting point, but it doesn’t do anything if you’re not entertained by the film. We want them to be entertained and be told something new and have them learn from these great stories that we tell. But the bottom line is that, hopefully at the end, they understand the importance and the pivotal role that black colleges have played not only in the lives of African-Americans, but in all Americans in the world. At certain changing points in our history, it’s been black colleges and black college students who have led the way.